James Gordon, MD, is author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma. He is part of a long tradition in psychology that stresses people’s need for meaning and purpose in their lives. From Maslow’s thinking in the 1940s about self-actualization, to present-day theories on mindfulness, psychology has always recognized the need for people to find ways to “be all I can be.” Gordon believes that empathy and service to others plays an important role in this psychological growth: “I’ve worked with hundreds of kids at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School since the shooting. They’re anxious, angry. But when they have a sense of being useful to other kids, their lives change. They want to share what has been helpful to them.”
Mark Leary, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, adds another element – humility – to the coping equation: “After more than 40 years of research on human nature, I have come to believe that most of the serious problems people create – for themselves and for society – are rooted in excessive self-preoccupation. People think about themselves far too much, selfishly focus on what they want without sufficient regard for other people, believe that they and their group are special, and think that their beliefs are correct.” [Both the Gordon and Leary quotes are from Psychology Today, “Putting Yourself in Perspective,” April 2020.]
In this blog we consider empathy and humility – along with acceptance and accountability – as foundations of the coping process, and try to dispel the notion that empathy means sympathy for others, and that humility means weakness and rejection of praise from others. Let’s briefly review those arguments.
As Leary says, present-day society seems devoted to “Me, me, me, and I, I, I.” Such self-absorption is at the core of many of our present individual and group problems. When you lack humility, and believe that “the world owes me,” you form your own pity parade when things don’t go your way. You wail about the unfairness of it all – “I deserve better!” You talk and think your way into becoming an emotional cripple. Humility helps you admit that you are not the primary ingredient in your life recipe, that there are always others involved. This admission can help release you from your self-pity, give you an uplifting sense of freedom, and instill you with an optimistic spirit – all of which partially inoculate you against despair, helplessness, and depression. Strengthened by this new-found positivity, you will be more likely to “share yourself” with others who are also fighting stress in their lives, and here is where empathy enters the picture.
Empathy – which, along with humility, completes the inoculation against despair, helplessness, and depression – allows you to understand others in the context of their needs, not yours. That understanding allows you to focus your actions around human values and social conscience, and to act in the service of moral principles. Sympathy has nothing to do with it. As Gordon points out, the beauty of empathy is that both giver (you) and taker (the other) reap the psychological benefits. There is no more effective personal therapy than empathetic service to others, making sure you leave no one behind. Whatever your plight, you discover you are not alone, and that you have the ability to help others.
Jack is 58, on disability and a widower whose wife died from cancer 13 months ago. He is unable to continue working as a longshoreman because of a workplace accident that happened 4 months ago, and damaged his eyes enough to make working on the docks risky. Once a competent, independent, can-do-anything type of guy, Jack is now depressed, plagued with low self-esteem, and on a daily pity parade. He mostly hangs around the house, alone with his thoughts, and often wondering what’s the point of even staying alive. One morning his good friend, Larry – who used to work with Jack and is also a widower and on disability – came to Jack’s home at 8am and announced, “OK, that’s it. Get off your duff. I’m sick and tired of watching you waste away. You’re coming with me to the gym.” The gym was connected to where they used to work, and they enjoyed free membership as an employee perk. Each day for the next week Larry arrived at roughly the same time, and off they went to a couple of hours of treadmill, weights, laps in the pool, and a sauna – anything that could be managed within the limits of their disability. They cooled down at the juice bar and munched on raw veggies. On the first day, after the gym session, Larry dragged Jack to the grocery store and showed him how to shop “healthy,” which meant no junk food.
After a week Jack was hooked and the trip to the gym with Larry became a part of his routine. Then, one day after the workout, Larry said, “You’re not going home yet. We have another stop. We have some people who need our help.” And off they went to a soup kitchen where Larry volunteered. For the next couple of hours they dished out food to anyone who stopped by, mostly homeless folks. After serving was done they helped the staff clean up the room, which took a good 30 minutes even with 8 volunteers present. Once Jack got home, he flopped in a chair, exhausted, but “Feeling better about myself than I had since Sherrie died. My body felt good and strong, I had purpose, I was useful, I was needed. I realized I was a selfish SOB thinking I was deserving of special treatment. Those folks at the soup kitchen needed help a lot more than I did.” Jack picked up the phone and called Larry. “I want to do the soup kitchen again tomorrow, OK?” Larry laughed. “I do it every day buddy. I just didn’t want to pile it on you too soon.”
The power of humility and empathy. Six months later Jack was still doing his gym routine and working at the soup kitchen. Now, however, he was involved in both the food preparation – “Me, a chef,” he laughed – and serving. He was also a volunteer at the state Office of the Blind, doing what he could to help folks whose visual impairment was far worse than his. Just about every day he says to Larry, “You know, we’re both blessed.” Larry smiles and nods in agreement.